Deb Dawson, ’99, was leading a full life with a husband, three biological sons and three adopted girls when she met Joseph Akol Makeer, a Lost Boy of Sudan.“Joseph told me after 22 years of civil war, South Sudan had depopulated much of the country, a peace agreement had been signed and people were returning,” Dawson said. “An orphan himself, he wanted to make a movie about orphans returning from the refugee camps. He thought if people saw it, they might help.” While pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at MSUM, Deb made four short films. Initially, she thought she’d pass the project off to filmmakers she knew, but instead used her own passion to see it through. “In December of 2007 our small team flew to Kenya and filmed at Kakuma refugee camp where Makeer had lived for 11 years,” Dawson said. “Then, we chartered a mission plane to land in Joseph’s village of Duk Payuel, Jonglei State. There we interviewed children, elders, chiefs and pastors. Our 25-minute documentary, African Soul, American Heart, won awards at film festivals. More importantly, we knew these children really needed help.” To address this humanitarian need, Dawson enlisted Kevin Brooks, who traveled with her to make the film; Ron Saeger, sponsor of two of the orphans; Bob Rosenvold, the attorney who did their legal work; and John (Jef) Foss, an architect, to serve as the board for African Soul, American Heart (ASAH), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, incorporated in North Dakota in 2008. They began to develop plans and raise money to help the orphans. Several board members have traveled to Africa to work with the Kenya orphans and to share their expertise with the village. Since 2008, ASAH has provided 100 percent support for Sudanese orphans to attend boarding schools in Kenya. Fargo-Moorhead sponsors have increased the group from three to eleven children. The children are grateful for the opportunity and are in the top 10 percent of their classes. The primary goal for ASAH is to ensure orphan girls in Duk are educated through graduation. In November 2010, ASAH was granted land in Duk Payuel to build a compound to house 50 girls. Chiefs there want ASAH to serve all the villages in Duk County, so each village will in return receive educated young women. “This is a remote village and there have been many challenges, but every time we hit an obstacle, we manage to get through it,” Dawson said. “It’s been an extraordinary experience. We’ve selected our first five girls, ages 8- 15, who will live in the compound during the three-month long school terms. Our compound is a short walk from the local school. We’ll teach additional skills like sewing, gardening and cooking something beyond sorghum, as well as offer tutoring in school subjects. When the girls graduate, they’ll have marketable skills that can help support their families.”In June, Dawson made her fourth trip to Africa to bring cargo, address some of the construction and equipment details for the new facility, and orient the girls about living in the new facility. Dawson feels compelled to follow this difficult path. “When we adopted our girls from Russia, they presented some problems, too, but you follow through because no one else is going to. If I walked away from it right now, I’d feel like I’d failed these people I’ve come to know. It may not succeed as I envision, but we’ll do something.”
A photographic exhibit entitled, “African Soul, American Heart: Images of Duk Payuel,” is on display now through November 13, 2011 at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead, MN. Learn more about African Soul American Heart. Watch videos on YouTube and read their blog.